On December 28, 2018, Governor Bruce Rauner righted an outrageous wrong by commuting the sentences of six youth who were unfairly prosecuted in Saline County due to childish behavior occurring at the Illinois Youth Center-Harrisburg (“IYC-Harrisburg”).
These six youth were sentenced for criminal charges which were the result of staff, acting as private citizens, going to law enforcement with what were mostly minor incidents – allegations ranging from pushing, shoving, spitting or grabbing – that either did not result in any physical injuries or resulted in only minor injuries. These types of incidents should have been addressed solely through the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice’s (“IDJJ”) institutional grievance process. While the IDJJ grievance policy had historically included the use of solitary confinement, ongoing litigation compelled IDJJ to create and institute new policies resulting in a ban of the use of solitary as a disciplinary response. These new restrictions – consistent with national best practices – were not welcomed by a few of the IDJJ staff, and administrators struggled to effectively introduce new tools to garner staff buy-in for these new protocols and practices. This impasse ultimately led staff at IYC-Harrisburg to go outside the institutional grievance structure to seek “appropriate” consequences for youth misbehavior. The Saline County State’s Attorney prosecuted over twenty new cases against these youth, seeking and shockingly securing long prison sentences for many of them in the adult prison system. Far from home and with insufficient support from local defense services, the youth pled guilty, often with little due process (without having been presented with the evidence against them, an opportunity to ask questions or provide information and with little understanding of the charges and potential penalties they faced). Adding insult to injury, despite all of these youth being indigent, fines and fees were tacked onto their prison terms.
The Governor’s action in commuting the sentences of these six youth is a critical beginning in addressing the harm caused by the internal system failure of IDJJ, a handful of disgruntled IDJJ staff, an excessively punitive prosecutor, and an absence of procedural justice. The John Howard Association, Juvenile Justice Initiative and the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy applaud the Governor for responding to requests for relief for these youth.
The issue of these shockingly unfair prosecutions and sentences would never have come to light without the oversight of the IDJJ Independent Ombudsperson, Kathleen Bankhead. As the John Howard Association Executive Director Jennifer Vollen-Katz states: “Without the Office of the Independent Ombudsman for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, the system failure evidenced by the increased and unfair prosecutions coming from IYC-Harrisburg would have continued undetected with devastating consequences for many more children in state custody. Every youth deserves a chance to move forward and have a successful future. Multiple years in adult custody for rude but not dangerous behavior is a both a perversion and denial of justice.”
“First and foremost, facilities must be safe for youth in custody and the staff who work there. Time and time again, evidence shows that this cannot be accomplished in large penal institutions. Safety, rehabilitation, and respectful and fair treatment demands closure of large youth centers and a move to community-based services and small, regional residential facilities that can provide needed treatment and support.”
Check out news coverage: 6 Young Men, Given Adult Sentences for “Minor” Infractions, Are Freed in Illinois